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A Political History of the Future: Introduction

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We are pleased to introduce what will be, at the minimum, a series of guest posts from beloved site regular Abigail Nussbaum. –SL

Greetings, fellow LGMers! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Abigail Nussbaum, and since 2005 I’ve been a blogger and reviewer, concentrating mostly but not exclusively on science fiction and fantasy in print and on screen. Last summer I won the Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. I’m also a long-time reader and commenter on this blog. A while ago, it was suggested that I might write something pop-culture related for LGM, and in honor of the new year I’ve come up with an idea that I think combines my interests with the ideas and concerns that we all love to talk about. I ran it by Scott and the other front pagers, and happily they were amenable.

So, welcome to A Political History of the Future, an irregular series about how science fiction (and, potentially, also fantasy) addresses politics, and specifically the political issues that get a lot of play at LGM: climate change, inequality, labor issues, the role of media in shaping the political landscape, and the changing face of democracy. My plan is to devote each installment to a particular work and discuss how its themes reflect current issues. Even more importantly, I want to talk about how science fiction imagines ways of ordering society that are different from the ones we know, that offer alternatives to the existing social order.

That’s by no means the norm. A lot of the time, when science fiction tries to engage with hot-button political issues, it does so in the terms of post-apocalypse or dystopia. Most climate change novels, for example, can more accurately be described as climate catastrophe novels. That’s not unjustified, obviously, but my interest is in stories that imagine functional societies, even if those societies are also flawed or predatory. And while talking about accuracy and realism in the context of science fiction worldbuilding is often just an excuse to be nitpicky and dismissive, I’m more interested in stories that show their work, that think through how a policy or an institution would come into being, and how it would affect society as a whole.

To give an example from the negative, while I enjoyed it very much as a piece of TV-making and a feminist statement, I’m not planning to write about Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (though that might change according to how the second season shakes out). When Margaret Atwood published the original novel in 1985, she constructed its gender-dystopia world in response to forces she saw around her, a combination of anti-feminist backlash, Phyllis Schlafly’s Christianist anti-women doctrine, and the Iranian revolution. That this was an incoherent patchwork didn’t matter because the focus of the novel was on Offred’s mental state, and its scope rarely extended past her confined viewpoint. The television series recreates that world more or less uncritically, and even with the gloss of topicality it layers over, the result doesn’t really hold water. That’s not a criticism of the show, which to my mind is one of the most essential pop culture artifacts of the current era. But it means that I don’t have much to say about it as a piece of political worldbuilding.

In contrast, The Hunger Games is fastidious in how it constructs a detailed, internally consistent world. The actual economy or government bureaucracy might not hold together, but to someone reading the books or watching the movies, their world feels of a piece, governed by particular prejudices and preoccupations that run through every level of society. Within that world, however, we discover a fairly straightforward story of resistance—morally complicated, to be sure, but politically quite simple, and therefore not in the scope of this series.

So what am I interested in? I’ve put together a list of works from the last few years that embody some of the ideas I’m interested in.

  1. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (2017)

    The ur-example for this series. Robinson is known for worldbuilding that examines how government, science, and finance work in concert and in opposition to shape societies. In New York 2140 he imagines a climate change future that is both hopeful and enraged. His future, Venice-ized New York is a triumph of collective action over the indifferent forces that created the climate crisis, and also a tempting target for the finance industry to exploit and monetize. I can’t think of another recent work of science fiction that so thoroughly grasps how innovation and exploitation feed off, and sometimes become, each other. (I reviewed New York 2140 in The New Scientist last year.)

  2. The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, 2015; The Obelisk Gate, 2016; The Stone Sky, 2017)

    For those of you worrying that my interest in functional worlds means that I’m only going to talk about “optimistic” settings, Jemisin’s trilogy is the counter-example. Her world, The Stillness, is designed from the top down to survive the incredible challenge of persistent, catastrophic geological instability, with everything from urban planning to individual naming conventions governed by a “lore” meant to maximize the community’s chances of survival. But the more we learn about The Stillness, the more we perceive the profound injustice and prejudice that are baked into its core assumptions. One of Jemisin’s goals with his remarkable series is to discuss how a working, sustainable society can run on exploitation of the worst kind, and what kind of upheaval is required to change that. (I wrote about the final volume, The Stone Sky, at my blog.)

  3. The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016)

    The influence of The Handmaid’s Tale is strongly felt in this novel, in which women suddenly develop the ability to shoot bolts of lightning, and society is rocked by the sudden reversal of the potential for violence that exists, albeit generally unspoken, between the genders. Alderman’s concern, however, isn’t exactly gender. She’s interested in the broader question of what role violence plays in how we order our societies, even when we pretend to have overcome it. In one of the novel’s most interesting subplots, a female politician discovers that her constituents actually like the fact that she’s suddenly dangerous, that this makes her seem more reliable to them, and neither she nor we know exactly what to do with this information. (I reviewed The Power for Strange Horizons.)

  4. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016)

    There’s a lot going on in this novel, in which a witch and a mad scientist fall in love and then each discover that the other poses a fundamental danger to the world’s survival. Some readers (myself included) might find it a bit too cute. But what I find interesting—and relevant to this discussion—is that All the Birds in the Sky is ultimately a novel about what to do when you’re a powerful, privileged, compassionate person in a fundamentally broken world that you think it is your responsibility to fix. I particularly liked the subplot in which a tech billionaire tries to save the world, with predictably disastrous results, but the entire novel is about how enormous this question is, and how it must nevertheless be addressed.

  5. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

    For the most part, this novel, about a couple in a war-torn Muslim country who escape through doors that appear randomly all over the world, is a fable. But at its end, as the effect of the doors accumulates and starts to reorder how refugees are treated and allowed to organize themselves, it becomes a vision of a different reality, one in which borders are unsustainable.

  6. Black Mirror (2011-)

    I know, I know. We’re not supposed to take Black Mirror seriously, as either a vision of the future or a political statement. As a thousand thinkpieces decrying the show for its kneejerk technophobia have informed us, the failure mode of this anthology series (pithily summed up as “what if phones, but too much”) is in treating technology as an atomistic customer choice that only serves to expose the worst impulses of its characters. But while that’s certainly true of some episodes, in other cases I think the show overcomes its impulse to be nasty and judgmental, and actually has something to say about how technology can change the way society orders itself. (I haven’t watched the fourth season yet, and I may have some more to write about it when I do.)

    • “Fifteen Million Merits” (season 1, episode 2) – Most reviewers tend to dismiss this episode as a glib reality TV satire, but to me what makes it remarkable (besides the impressively thoughtful, and deeply scary, vision of a world in which media has an absolute right to your time and attention, not to mention a great central performance from a pre-Get Out Daniel Kaluuya) is the conclusion, in which we see how the episode’s society is structured to commodify anything, even criticism of itself.
    • “The Waldo Moment” (season 2, episode 3) – For the life of me, I don’t understand why this isn’t the most talked-about episode of the show. At the time it aired, it might have been easy to dismiss “Waldo” as cynical, but if anything this story, in which a shock-jock comedy show performer realizes that he’s tapped into genuine political power despite having nothing to say, didn’t go far enough (in particular, it fails to realize how nihilism could pair with racist nationalism, which is in general something that Black Mirror tends to whiff on). Emily Nussbaum has a great discussion of “Waldo” in The New Yorker as part of a longer conversation about the role that comedy played in Trump’s election.
    • “White Christmas” (2014 Christmas special) – What elevates this story is its length, and therefore its breadth. Instead of focusing on a single technological innovation—and how it makes the world awful—it offers us a series of vignettes that eventually tie together. And though there’s no shortage of the show’s trademark nastiness, it’s tempered by a more even-handed approach that reminds us that it’s people who are the problem, not the gadgets they use.
    • “Men Against Fire” (season 3, episode 5) – Not the best story, but for once the show acknowledges that how technology is applied, and how it’s used to hurt people, depends a lot on things like race, class, and nationality. The idea of tampering with soldiers’ perception of reality in order to make them more biddable isn’t a new one, but it’s here, again, that the show’s willingness to be nasty works for it—this is an ugly premise, but sufficiently close to reality that that ugliness feels earned.
  7. The Terra Ignota sequence by Ada Palmer (Too Like the Lightning, 2016; Seven Surrenders, 2017; The Will to Battle, 2017; Perhaps the Stars, expected in 2018)

    If I were someone else, this series would be the centerpiece of this project. Unfortunately, Palmer’s books, though undeniably brilliant and erudite, tend to elicit only extreme reactions. Readers either really like them or really don’t, and I’m afraid that I’m in the latter camp. Nevertheless, people interested in writers who imagine a different world should at the very least give this series a chance. In Palmer’s future, humanity orders itself not according to nations but into affinity groups, defined by governing philosophies and interests. The business of the first novel is introducing us to this society and explaining how it works (and doesn’t), but it’s obvious that the sequence as a whole will be about how the underlying faults in this social structure reveal themselves. (Crooked Timber had one of their fantastic seminars about the first two books in this series. You can find my exasperated comment detailing why I bounced off Too Like the Lightning below one of the posts.)

The first installment in this series—covering either Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, or Netflix’s adaptation of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, or something else if it comes up—should arrive towards the end of the month or the beginning of February. I hope you’ll join in the conversation.

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